The Whole Employee

Caring for team leaders: How employers can increase productivity by supporting middle management

5 min read
Nov 20, 2023

Key takeaways:

  • Managers occupy a “middle ground” when it comes to satisfaction and loyalty, with worse outcomes than executive leadership but better outcomes than non-managers.
  • Team leaders struggle with high levels of stress and burnout, but they’re less likely to seek help than executive leadership.
  • Employers have an opportunity to demonstrate care for managers by helping them access their mental health benefits, as well taking steps to reduce workplace stress and burnout.        

Middle managers play a critical role in shaping the workplace culture. As many employees’ primary point of contact with leadership, empathetic team leaders can have a positive influence on engagement and productivity that reverberates throughout the workforce.

But the inverse is true, too. And in an age of “quiet hiring,” where middle managers have steadily taken on more and more responsibilities, managers’ stress and burnout can threaten productivity, satisfaction, and loyalty across the organization.

Here, we’ll shed light on the growing stress among middle managers today, share strategies for employers to effect greater outcomes for managers through employee care.

The current outcomes for managers: High satisfaction but lagging mental health

On a macro level, today’s managers are faring well. More than three-quarters (76%) of managers say they’re satisfied with the job they have now, compared to 68% of non-managers and 82% for executive leadership. And 8 in 10 say they intend to be working at their organization in 12 months’ time, compared to 73% for non-managers and 87% for executive leadership.

However, the stress of leading a team lurks beneath the surface, and managers have significantly worse mental health outcomes than the employees they lead:

Report of feeling overwhelmed at work
Thirty-nine percent of team leaders say they feel stressed when working, compared to 35% of non-managers. Thirty-seven percent report feeling overwhelmed at work, compared to 32% of non-managers.

While managers don’t quite reach the levels of stress and overwhelm experienced by executive leadership — 41% and 43%, respectively — they’re significantly less likely to get support for their mental health. While nearly half (45%) of executive leadership have sought external help to manage stress, burnout, or other mental health issues, just 27% of managers have done so.

Managers are also significantly less likely to feel cared for than executive leadership

Managers also have a distinct experience from executive leadership and non-managers when it comes to employee care: A multifaceted view to employee well-being that takes into account employees’ experiences both at work and outside of work.

Like any employee, managers want to feel that their employer cares about their well-being. But, as team leaders, they're also tasked with delivering care to the members of their team. When middle management feels cared for, they’re more likely to be able to practice the empathetic leadership that fosters a sense of care among non-managers, as well.

However, middle managers currently expect more care from their employer than they’re currently receiving:

Eighty-two percent of team leaders say employers have a responsibility to care for their employees, yet just sixty-three percent of team leaders say they feel cared for. These team leaders are less likely to feel cared for, compared to executive-level leaders.

As a result, this lingering "care gap" doesn't just undercut outcomes for middle managers, it also threatens the sense of care and well-being among non-managers as well.

3 Strategies to more effectively care for managers

Caring for middle management requires understanding — and adapting to — their unique needs. And our research has identified three opportunities for employers to care for middle management and bolster productivity and engagement across their organizations.

1. Reassess managers’ workloads so they can effectively care for their team

While it’s beneficial for employers to recognize team leaders’ accomplishments, it’s also important to ensure people managers aren’t being stretched too thin.

More than half (53%) of team leaders say their leadership team expects them to perform too many different roles. As middle managers quietly take on more and more tasks, employers can demonstrate care by reassessing managers' workloads and helping them delegate duties whenever possible.

Encouraging delegation offers a number of benefits beyond simply reducing the risk of burnout. It also gives non-managers opportunities to learn new skills, helping provide professional development that makes up an element of employee care . Finally, it gives managers the bandwidth to focus on empathetic leadership — and more effectively play their role in demonstrating care to non-managers on the team.

2. Foster a culture of support that recognizes managers’ accomplishments

An empathic workplace culture goes a long way to help employees feel valued and appreciated — and, for many managers, a social and supportive culture is among the most important aspects of care.

However, our research reveals that employers’ efforts to demonstrate employee appreciation may not always resonate with managers:

Almost all of team leaders say recognition of their hard work is an important way for their employers to demonstrate care, yet only sixty-six percent are satisfied with how their employer does so. Just over half of team leaders say they don’t get the recognition they deserve as a manager.

Employers should rethink their employee recognition strategies to highlight middle management in employee appreciation efforts, for example, and train executive leadership to recognize managers’ day-to-day wins.

3. Encourage managers to access their mental health benefits

Wellness programs and benefits are central to the employee experience — and they’re especially important to help team leaders manage the stress and overwhelm that can come along with their job.

Overall, middle management is happy with the benefits offered by their employer, with 68% their current benefits package helps reduce their overall stress levels. However, there’s still opportunity for improvement.

Because team leaders remain significantly less likely to seek help for stress and burnout than executive leadership, tailored benefit communications may help managers utilize their benefits. Employers should craft communications tailored to managers' concerns — for example, communications highlighting the early warning signs of burnout, and shedding light on how wellness programs and benefits can help — to empower team leaders to use the programs and benefits available to them.

Boost organization-wide outcomes by caring for managers

As both recipients of and ambassadors to employee care, middle managers have the potential to make a pivotal impact on the workplace. Employers who successfully care for their team leaders not only stand to unlock greater loyalty and satisfaction among these workers, they’re poised to realize greater outcomes among non-managers, too.

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